Saturday, July 03, 2010

Back to the wild

DROP by our home and you will also not fail to miss our garden.

Ask the mailman, the water delivery boys, the teachers conducting the latest census.

After they mount the stairs and spot this rectangle of about 25 square meters, visitors nearly always stay on the pebbled path that leads to the door.

They might just want to spare their shoes or avoid stirring up mosquitoes as large as horses from bursting out of the wild growth.

I can’t say I blame them. After decades of pouring cement, concrete and asphalt, our leaders and investors are bringing back green spaces. They are re-sculpting urban consciousness to return the outdoors to our life.

It’s a relief not just to find our cities breathing again but many people actually walking, running, biking, skateboarding, playing, reading, conversing and sleeping under trees.

Yet the popularity of “natural architecture” has one “tic”.

Emphasizing the aesthetic, the exotic, and the decorative started the fad among homeowners to abandon the backyard gardens of old for botanical showcases.

For generations that lived with the deprivations of war, a garden was for raising household needs: the omnipresent “malunggay,” herbs, vegetables and root crops, if space allowed.

These days, we drive to the nearest grocery or the wet market for what the household needs. We cultivate a garden to distinguish our home from the similar-looking units in the mass housing project.

A few summers ago, our family worked on our garden. We hauled in garden soil. We brought in organic fertilizer. We got plants and shrubs of varying hues of green, flowers whose names I did not even know.

Before summer ended, we spread a mat and played Scrabble or Monopoly on the carpet of blue grass that eventually turned brown, like a moth-eaten rug, under our trampling.

Though they did not strike us as landscape consultants, our cats, too, took a stake in the transformation of their territory. Statuesque plants swayed, graceful but flowerless. I wondered if the trellis’ shade or the hilltop breeze was upsetting the blossom production until I saw the cats swat at, nibble and pounce on them during slow afternoons.

The gradual disappearance of our garden happened not due to human neglect or feline malice but household need. When dengue cases rose in our village, scrounging for “manggagaw” along the streets seemed insufficient and unhygienic. Thriving even in shallow soil or under the shade, the weed is boiled to make a decoction that prevents the worsening of a person bitten by a dengue mosquito.

When we potted shrubs that had velvety maroon leaves, the cats also fancied them as cushions. Dreaming about mice, cats pouncing in their sleep occasionally caused pot and plant to smash on the street. When we replaced the ornamentals with “manggagaw” and onion bulbs, the cats kept off the pots. Onion is good for burns, insomnia and Pinoy “bistek” (beef steak).

We drink but don’t buy java tea or wachichao tea; we grow cat’s whiskers plant. It’s a pretty sight in the wilderness before us, its white feathery stamens any fastidious feline may proudly claim as its own whiskers. Wachichao flushes the kidneys, urinary tract and gall bladder. It is said to treat diabetes and elevated levels of cholesterol and blood pressure. It fools the cats.

Whenever someone’s delivering mineral water or the post, we calm their fears by pointing out that only household tabbies, not larger predators, are stirring the overgrowth.

Look, this is a garden. That’s green tea (for managing weight, cancer and heart disease), oregano (for flavoring pasta, pizza and salads and driving away mosquito), two kinds of jasmine, also known as “sampaguita,” fragrant in the night air and in a cup as jasmine-flower tea, and “tanglad” (lemongrass juice is “antiseptic, analgesic, antifungal, antimicrobial and antidepressant,” as well as unforgettable when paired off with native free-ranging chicken in a pot).

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 4, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

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